Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Making Asian Studies (More) Interdisciplinary

One of my many projects over sabbatical was to rethink my Asian Ethics course. The main population of this course consists not of philosophy majors (though they enroll too, but I teach a more specific and directed course for them), but rather two main groups of students: first, and foremost, those seeking to fulfill the Ethics component of our general education requirements at my university and secondly, students enrolled in Asian studies.

A major source of weakness in the course before, as I saw it, was that it focused a bit too heavily just on seeing texts from a philosophical point of view. Students enjoyed the course, but I personally found it a bit stiff. I felt that students didn’t really come away appreciating the Asian component as much as they could have. Instead, they got a course in ethics using Asian texts. To fix this, I though, I needed to make the course more interdisciplinary. So I’ve made some changes. Not huge ones, but I’ve made a start.

The major alteration in the syllabus is the inclusion of guest speakers. I invited six professors to come and speak to the class on a variety of topics (I tried to insert the acctual schedule for the semester, but Blogspot can't handle it -- so I'll just point out that we cover these major texts, first Analects, then Dhammapada, then Bhagavad Gita, then Tao Te Ching, then Zhuangzi, with some other smaller authors put in here and there. If you'd like to see the schedule more specifically and how the course is laid out, see my reproduced post at my own blog, here, where the semester scheduled readings table came out fine in the post:

In any event, with respect to each talk, here’s what I was envisioning:

1. History talk: students reading the Analects (and the Tao Te Ching, later on) need to have some appreciation and understanding of the specific challenges (understood in a variety of ways) that existed for people living in pre-Qin China.

2. Meditation talk: this interactive session on Buddhist meditation techniques (students are expected to actually do the techniques in class) occurs right after reading about it and studying its importance in Dhammapada. Reading about meditation and its uses is one thing, doing it is another!

3. Psychology talk: the point here was to show students that ancient Confucian thought is not dead, or confined to the ancient Chinese world. Can key Confucian beliefs and ways of thinking be seen in modern China? If so, how would you set up psychological experiments to test for the presence of Confucian thinking? Also here some emphasis on how these results might affect modern concerns (for instance, cross-cultural discussions of human rights) will be highlighted.

4. Literature talk: anyone who teaches Asian texts cannot help but admit that there are obvious literary dimensions to these works; as such, dissecting them simply from a philosophical point of view is short sighted. Specifically, this talk will focus on the beauty of reading Zhuangzi from a literary perspective.

5. Art talk: when trying to think about what (if any) differences exist between “western” and “eastern” ways of thinking about the world (or differences between various “eastern” ways of thinking), looking at art can be revealing. The ways that the artist comes at the work and develops it reveals a lot about his/her conceptual presuppositions. This talk would highlight some of those possible ways of approaching Asian artwork.

6. Calligraphy talk: my hope here was that, in starting the Tao Te Ching, students would come to feel the Chinese language by trying to work on writing the characters themselves. In the class, we focus for a day on the first poem of the TTC, so in this class the hope is that students can learn to appreciate Chinese philosophy even more by having an actual experience in trying to see what goes into actually writing it (they would focus on the first line of the TTC, which has few characters.


In trying to make Asian studies (in this case Asian Ethics) more interdisciplinary, I’ve started at the ground floor, obviously – spicing up the semester with talks from people with expertise in Asian studies from other areas. Of course, a more ambitious effort would go much further than this in trying to make such courses truly interdisciplinary. It’s a big task, however.

If anyone is willing to leave their thoughts, I’m curious about (a) what your thoughts are about this current attempt I am trying out this semester (on any level – for example, any other possible talks you would try to include, in an ideal world? An obvious glaring problem in this schedule is the lack of talks about India, but this was more of a scheduling problem with the professor I was hoping to bring in). But also (b): how could the project of making courses like this one more interdisciplinary be conducted in an even bolder and far more innovative and ambitious way?


  1. This sounds like a great approach. I particularly like the inclusion of the meditation and psychology lectures.

    You might think about adding a second history lecture on the role of Confucianism during various eras of Chinese history. It might help students appreciate the historical significance of what they're reading. Alternatively, a historical lecture on the spread of ideas from India to China and from China into Korea and Japan might provide a broader context.

    Did you find it difficult to get other faculty to participate?

    Can you say more about how, if at all, you're evaluating the non-philosophical components of students' learning in the course?

  2. Hi David -

    1. The second history lecture is a great idea on either of those topics. Although the psychology person will talk a little about current relevancy to questions of human rights, it might be interesting if the first of your ideas (on the role of Confucianism through the eras) could also spend some time on the current situation (post Mao): the "reconstruction" of Confucianism as a state sponsored ideology under the PRC, and the interesting challenges and tensions this creates. Of course, this could also be a standalone: perhaps something done by a political scientist?

    2. It was not hard, but there are clearly serious obstacles to putting together these sort of things. The problem is: the current structure of faculty work just doesn't open up a space for this sort of thing -- or for trying to expand on it -- and so it just leaves it as "noble labor" for the professor(s) in question.

    In this instance, I am lucky to have some dedicated colleagues, and they are also fellow members of the Asian studies department, so I suppose they feel a little obligation to do a bit more. I was successful, however, in prying out some money from various sources at the university, and I'll be using that to give out small, but meaningful, honorariums.

    My current concern is that this is something I'd like to continue in the future, and build on. So this sort of approach to constructing a course needs to have access to resources -- mostly financial at this point (heck -- I'd like to invite speakers to come talk from local universities, but I'd need more "healthy" honorariums to do that). It's on my "to do" list to investigate how to get a more formal lasting commitment from the university on ways to go about securing those resources.

    3. At the moment, I have no formal plan to evaluate the non-philosophical components. I wanted to just test drive it first, and see how it works, how the students react, and how they seem to incorporate the talks into their own thinking as the semester goes on. From there I'll try to figure out some ways to assess the contribution's impact, though I admittedly haven't thought much yet on how to do that.


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